By Vadim Rizov | Indiewire January 18, 2012 at 10:00AM
One of the best is Rebecca Zlotowski’s awesomely trashy "Dear Prudence" ("Belle Epine"—literally, "Beautiful Thorn"), which premiered in the U.S. last March as part of MOMA's New Directors New Films. "Prudence" is Léa Seydoux, a young French actress who seems poised to take over the world shortly, having played small parts for Quentin Tarantino and Raul Ruiz before popping up recently in "Midnight In Paris" and "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol."
Prudence’s mother died 16 days ago, her father’s in Canada working on the inheritance and doesn’t know when he’ll be back. Prudence glowers and seems vaguely determined to get in trouble: she’s stopped going to high school, but the next rebellious step is unclear.
In the opening scene she’s busted for shoplifting and forced to strip alongside biker chick Maryline (Agathe Schlenkler), whose comparative free-spiritedness is signaled by the fact that she’s not wearing a bra (Zlotowski’s big on casual/near-sleazy nudity; if Larry Clark had made this movie, there would be some very aggrieved reviews). Prudence invites her to come over to smoke cigarettes, maybe invite some people over.
The goal is infiltrating a group of motorcyclists: eating her morning cereal, Prudence watches sensationalist TV news reports on gangs of bikers gunning down the road to doom. Why do they do it? To feel alive, to stand out, etc.: the language is straight juvenile delinquent '50s melodrama. The night races —flashing lights zooming through the dark, sparks flying (Prudence jumps when some land on her), the dangerous thrill of crossing through the line of biker traffic to the other side —are rendered with epic portent, underlaid by Rob’s throbbing score, equal parts ‘80s synth rumble and contemporary, "Tron: Legacy"-esque repurposing.
When Prudence rides with the bikers, the dreaminess of passing backgrounds is second to her facial reactions —one of the only times Seydoux lets her discomfiting, confrontationally miserable face lapse into something else. These parts are like the first five minutes of "Drive"—happiness conveyed through stylistic bliss-out, turning rote B-movie tropes into knowingly hyperbolized drama, with a series of silent facial reactions externalizing internal struggle.
The explanation for Prudence’s behavior is pro forma, but Zlotowski’s volatile, go-for-it aesthetic juxtaposes stylized teenage emotional opera with Prudence’s alternative: her family’s Judaism (including a long, hilarious summary of the origins of the Ten Holy Days of Awe). Unluckily for her, Prudence gets to deal with death, abandonment, mourning, her emerging sex life and motorcyclist hijinks all at the same time: pared down to 80 minutes, Seydoux’s total sullen commitment and Zlotowski’s grand gestures make for a mesmerizingly oddball, gear-shifting coming-of-age saga with religious fringes.
The sexually charged young-girl drama is a recent staple for young French female directors; Zlotowski’s mythic take has come alongside recent films like Celine Sciamma’s self-consciously understated "Tomboy" (young girl pretends to be boy before it’s too late and the puberty threshold has been crossed) and Mia Hansen-Love’s 10-years-in-the-life-of-a-woman "Goodbye, First Love." There’s a way to do this completely wrong, as Katell Quillévéré demonstrates in "Love Like Poison," which foregrounds religion.
As in Alice Rohrwacher’s recent Italian drama "Corpo Celeste," the Catholic Church’s role as an active part of social life provides the background: a first communion in that film, a first confirmation here. Like Prudence, Anna (Clara Augardes) has an absentee father (one who makes false promises and has a new family) and is on strained terms with her mother. Freshly aware of her body as an object of sexual desire, she’s torn between the proscribed devotional path of Catholicism, the clumsy but harmless advances of neighboring boy Pierre (Youen Leboulanger-Gourvil) and the initially sexless relationship with paternal grandfather Jean (Michel Galabru).
Alone upstairs in his ancient, unmoving obesity, Jean gets full-body sponge baths from the young girl, making it clear in an unnerving way that he can’t help but respond to her youthful ripeness, which is all a bit skeezy. Quillévéré has a largely naturalistic, medium-shot unsensationalist approach, allowing herself would-be lyrical interludes largely set to pastoral songs: “Greensleeves” (no joke) backs a montage of a rainy afternoon in the countryside. All this doesn’t ground the more outre material —at one point Anna yells “Do I turn you on?” at her mother —and it’s hard to think of a less convincing recent portrait of youthful girl sex angst.
Set against these two portraits of young French girls in ferment is a determinedly complacent comedy saying that the French nation is having no more such birth pangs: "Back to Square One" firmly asserts that there are no more race relations problems in the country, that any lingering racists can be set right with some dignified, plain-spoken real talk from the insulted minority in question and that therefore there are no more obstacles to joyous, instant assimilation.
This message is delivered in a kind of "Bill & Ted’s Most Excellent Roots Adventure" format, with heritage-denying half-white lawyer Régis (Fabrice Éboué) and street-thug half-brother Joël (Thomas N’Gijol) reunited in the West Indies when their dad dies. Their “treasure” turns out to be their slave ancestors’ papers identifying them as free citizens: they tear it up, a pipe-smoking aunt is unamused by their cavalier attitude, and it’s back to 1780 West Indies for a quick lesson on how bad things used to be.
Jokes include a plantation who keeps leering at their “big black dicks,” a branding sequence for laughs (plus an equally irreverent take on a lashing), and all manner of who-cares-let’s-blow-this-up taboo-busting. The message couldn’t be clearer: while Régis must have more patience and tolerance with society’s less-productive, Joël needs to drop the pretense he’s a born-again Muslim (he likes leering at women too much, and in any case that attitude of immoderation makes the movie nervous), stop leaning on the “It’s because I’m black” card, get a construction job and pay his bus fare.
After all, what’s to complain about when a little over 200 years ago, his ancestors were just cutting down sugarcane? As a comedy, it’s passably made; as a social statement, it’s staggering.
Vadim Rizov is a Brooklyn-based film writer whose reviews, interviews, features, lists and specious think pieces regularly appear in Sight & Sound, The L Magazine and The A.V. Club; previous work includes a year's worth of blogging for IFC's now-defunct Indie Eye. His most notable work probably appears in 140-character squibs on Twitter, and more-or-less up-to-date viewing logs along with obsessive list-keeping can be found here.
Full disclosure: The festival's sponsors include SnagFilms, Indiewire's parent company.